For Educators - What About Games Makes Them Good for Learning?

Digital Games in the Classroom

What About Games Makes Them Good for Learning?

Digital games have become a major force in our culture. They even make more money than Hollywood movies. Digital games are ... everywhere.

And now they're entering a new realm - your classroom. Lots of people, including the ones at the National Science Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, think digital games can help you teach both standards-based academic content and 21st century thinking skills. No one's making these claims for any of the other kinds of media our kids love (action movies, graphic novels, dance music ...). So what's so special about digital games?

  "Gaming offers a different avenue to learning ... a more personal, discovery-oriented, subtle, internal and long-lasting way to learn." - John-Paul Bennett, Advance Team Teacher 

It's in the game.

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The best digital games are efficient, fun, and unique learning experiences. Just like you, the designers of these games have a deep understanding of what keeps people engaged and how they learn. They also know that the power of digital games has nothing to do with killing space aliens and everything to do with interactive game play that is inherently compelling regardless of the subject matter.

How do good games connect with kids and help them learn? Well, for starters ...

  • Kids love to make stuff. Games give them tools to make stuff.
    Today's kids are used to being able to create and share their own media (blogs, podcasts, digital images, etc. etc.). But you may not always get the chance to let them do that kind of work in your classroom. Good digital games give players lots of opportunities to be creative. In fact, good games typically engage players in "co-creating" the world of the game. Players make meaningful decisions about characters, storylines, and environments that shape the game play and build their commitment to the experience.
  • Kids learn best by experience. Games teach through experience.
    Anyone who's tried to teach kids the multiplication tables or the Pythagorean theorem knows that kids have a hard time with abstract learning. Good digital games are never abstract. They always embed their learning in the experience of the game play. Players learn new skills and information in context, when they need to learn it ... to feed a monster, to free a pet, or to escape from an enemy. Connecting learning to experience increases players' investment in learning, even while they may not even realize that they are learning.
  • Kids learn in different ways and at different speeds. Games are built to reach everyone who plays them.
    One size never fits all for kids in the classroom (or anywhere else). You always have to tailor your teaching to a wide range of learners. Good digital games have customized game play that meets everyone where they are. Almost every digital game has levels that allow players of varying skills to find a place in the game where they can succeed. And many games even detect players' learning styles and adjust game play to accommodate them. Good digital games provide truly differentiated instruction.
  • Kids like to explore and take chances. Games are built around player experimentation.
    All kids love to experiment and take chances in their learning. That's how they learn new information and skills in their lives. Every teacher wants to encourage this kind of intellectual exploration, but the demands of high-stakes testing can limit your opportunities to do this in the classroom.
  • Good digital games reward experimentation. Players almost never read the instructions before starting a new game because they know that the best and most efficient way to learn a digital game is by playing it. They simply dig in and start making hypotheses about what will work in the game. They test out those hypotheses, refine them, and test them again until they learn the rules of the game and how they can win. And if you think that sounds a little like using the scientific method, well then we agree with you.
  • Good digital games reward "failure." Players inevitably make lots of "wrong" hypotheses when they're learning a new game. And that can make it seem, from the outside, like players aren't getting anything at all from the game play. Kids understand this process, though, and are aware that only by continued "failure" will they learn the right ways to move forward in the game. Digital games give them a very safe environment for relatively risk-free experimentation.
So what's the upshot of all of this? Well, if you'd like your students to be engaged, invested in their learning, confident, creative, and adventurous (and what teacher wouldn't?) ... you may want to consider using digital games in your classroom.

  "There were some students on the first day of playing Lure of the Labyrinth that were saying, 'This is so stupid. Why won't you just tell us what to do?' However those students continued to plug away at it as they gathered pieces as to how to play the game and be successful. It was reinforcing watching them play over and over, even though they weren't getting it. Many times, when students are frustrated, they shut down. However, this was not the case. They were frustrated. But they were determined." - Victoria Borella and Courtney Handte - Advance Team Teachers 

So what have these games been teaching? And what can they teach?

The majority of commercial game designers have used the learning power of digital games to teach people how to play their games ... and to encourage them to keep on playing. Players do sometimes learn real-world content, depending on the subject matter of the game, but that's not usually the primary goal of the game.

On the other hand, many educators believe that digital games can actually be used to teach pretty much any subject. Digital games are being used as teaching tools by the military, private industry, and now in the classroom. How can games do such a good job of teaching so many different kinds of content? The designers of these "learning" digital games construct the game play so that players can only master the game and have a chance of winning if they actually learn the content that needs to be learned. So if a player has to learn about ratios in order to feed the monsters and free a pet (goals that she's taken on because of her deep engagement in the game), it turns out that she's very, very likely to put in the effort to learn about ratios.

The upshot is that digital games are incredibly powerful teaching tools even when their only goal is to teach players how to play the game so they can entertain themselves. But when these tools are used to teach academic content and problem-solving skills that your students absolutely have to learn ... we think that the sky's the limit.

P.S. - It's still only a tool. And you're still the teacher.

You'd never give a student a textbook in September and expect him to rely only on that book (without your fine teaching) to learn what he needed to know by May or June. And you wouldn't do that with a digital game, even a really great digital game, either. What you do before, during and after your students play Lure of the Labyrinth will absolutely have a huge impact on whether the game helps you achieve your teaching objectives (and, of course, we offer specific support around this subject throughout these materials.)

  "I mean, at some point there was no such thing
as a graphing calculator. Everyone had to learn how to use them ..." Read more in the Newbie Blog on Got Game?

There's no question about it. You are going to be breaking new ground here. Then again, keep this in mind as you prepare to bring games into your classroom ... once upon a time, textbooks were new, too.

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